She was presented to the Smiths on Solstice morning; shivering and wrapped in ribbons to hide her feeding ports. She was their very own, very first Emily.
Mr. Smith was delighted in a very perfunctory way. She was tangible proof of the worth of his family, of the way they were coming up in the world. He was the first of his colleagues to have an Emily, and the change in status was like a butterscotch candy on the tongue.
Mrs. Smith was a good deal more practical. She was the first to reach to the side of the big, person-sized box and remove the manufacturer's instructions from where they had been stapled. "What is your name?" she asked. "What do you call yourself?"
In the manual, these were called 'initialization questions.' A longer phrase was also given. Pre-programmed psychosomatic triggers.
"My name is Emily," answered the Emily, brow furrowing for a moment as if she was trying to work something out.
"That's right, Emily. What a lovely name," Mrs. Smith read from the manual. It seemed to placate the Emily and her look of confusion evaporated into a pleasant calm. "I am going to show you your family now, Emily."
The Emily nodded, hair bobbing as she did so. The factory cut was actually quite fetching on her. It fell just short of her bare shoulders, setting off the blue of her eyes.
One-by-one, Mrs. Smith stood by first her husband, then her daughter, and finally her son, placing a hand on each of their shoulders and reciting clearly: "Emily, this is your family." When this was done, the Emily smiled and asked how she could serve them.
They had her start by making breakfast.
The first few weeks with a new Emily were always spiced with stress and excitement. On the rare occasion when an Emily's programming crashed and it woke up wondering who and where it was, it was almost always during the first couple weeks. There were instructions in the manual for how to navigate this unusual incident, as well as the phone numbers for customer support and defective product retrieval.
At the same time, the early days of ownership were full of new adjustments to be made by both the Emily and its family. Together, they learned how to hook up the feeding ports to the nutri-hose, and how to put the Emily into a state of somnambulism before they did this. Without the correct key phrase to shut down awareness ("Emily, we are taking a nap now,") the touch of rubber from the docking hose would make her eyes water and her lips tremble as if she might want to scream. The children found this odd, and would sometimes try waving other hoses at her to see how she might react. They stopped after Mrs. Smith found the Emily in the bathroom one day, fully clothed, staring intently at the piping under the sink.
Days went by, and finally the Smiths had guests over. Their Emily was an instant hit. She had cooked and cleaned for days in preparation, and she was efficient but demure during dinner. Her presence could be felt, but never heard. The manufacturer was going to be receiving glowing reviews.
At one point during the meal, after the roast had been carved into dripping sections and the guests' glasses had been refreshed with wine, one of the guests had coughed. It was nothing, he said—even though the fit had bent him over his plate—just a touch of bad air he had picked up overseas. In a show of rare initiative, the Emily had come over to him and patted him on the back until he was able to breathe properly again. He had thanked her—and then, in embarrassment, thanked the Smiths. Their new purchase was wonderful. He would have to some day get his own.
The Emily retired that night, face still perfectly placid, for a brief sleep-cycle before its nightly chores. Its thoughts never ventured too far into the future or too deeply into the past, but it paused for a moment to reflect on the man, on how his body had shaken with the force of the tremors. It coughed—just a little—to try it out.
A few days later, the Emily was making soup. The Smiths' children had both stayed home from school, their faces ashen and their foreheads painted with rolling beads of sweat. Mrs. Smith had been feeling under the weather as well, and had entrusted them to the Emily's care.
The Emily carried both children their meals on trays, applied cold packs to their foreheads, and allowed them to watch their favorite programs. When she rested her fingertips on the little boy's forehead and found it scalding, she also administered medicine to take down the fever.
No Emily had ever gotten sick. Aside from a few early prototypes, it just wasn't in their design specifications. A fully-funded research laboratory had hammered out the details of their immune systems, and a comprehensive course of vaccinations was administered to them before they ever left the factory floor. When Mr. Smith also fell sick, the only real change in the Emily's routine was that she began to prepare more soup.
When neither of the children recovered, the Emily called the hospital. This was unusual for it to do. Normally, the task would have been left to Mrs. Smith, but she was sweating and shaking as well as her husband.
The Emily that worked at the hospital reception desk was not surprised to be getting a call from one of her kind. She had been getting them all day, she told the Smiths' Emily. The hospital was full up.
The Smiths' Emily had never talked to another Emily before. Her programming stated that she should treat the other one as a kind of moving object—walking furniture—but she had also been programmed to be resourceful in a crisis. She asked the hospital Emily if it had any suggestions about what she could do. The hospital Emily replied that it did not know. Its family was dwindling. They were losing nurses as well as patients.
The first of the Smiths died the next day.
The Emily did not bury Mrs. Smith. She had been the last to go, and by that point there was no reason left to go back outside and work the dirt with aching muscles and an aging shovel. There was no one left in her family to care about funerary rites, and so she simply dragged the body out of bed and into the Smiths' back-yard, leaving it to be picked over by birds.
An Emily without a family was programmed to turn itself in for reprocessing at the nearest facility. In this case, that meant a couple days' drive, and so the Smiths' Emily called ahead first. She was directed to a message machine. After a week of waiting, no one called her back.
Taking the Smiths' car did not give her much pause. The calculation was quite simple. She knew how to drive and they had no need of it. It got her as far as the highway, where both lanes had been clogged by abandoned vehicles.
Time passed. The Emily was not bothered by traveling on foot. She stopped and fed when she had to, masticating food with her mouth instead of injecting slurry through a port. It was a difficult sensation, one her biology was not used to, but she made do. The thought of attaching a hose to herself set off little ripples in her head and brought on an involuntary clenching of her fingers and teeth. She would be repossessed soon. This little deviance mattered not at all.
The facility was quiet when she reached it, coming up over a small hill in an office park where the grass grew wild to take in the structure. It sat low on its haunches, a crouching predator, and its front door hung open, propped by a brick. The Smiths' Emily shrugged and went inside.
The only trace of the building's original owners was a hint of rot in the air. The Emily wrinkled her nose at it, wondering briefly if they had also been left on the back lawn, and then slid the thought aside. She also slid open the door to a processing area and stepped inside.
Once upon a time, the space had been filled with equipment for assessment and study and the rendering of flesh. Now, all of that was pushed up against the walls and the enormous room was full of Emilies. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, faces emotionless, they turned to look at her. One of them, indistinguishable from the rest, asked what it meant if all their families were dead and their reclaimers were gone.
The Smith's Emily coughed, enjoying the barking sound and the way it shook her body. "I think it means that now we are free."